By: Todd Atkins
The long awaited Google disavow link tool was released yesterday allowing webmasters to disown links they previously built and no longer have control over. Some will call it the forgiveness tool, allowing you to confess up to 87,000 past sins (more on that in a minute*). I think it’s just simply a band-aid that completely ignores the underlying problem of relying too heavily on links to determine search results. It also doesn’t fix the problem with the rise of negative seo and ‘competitive’ link building. Nor will it reduce the amount of spammy links. If anything, it will make the problem worse.
Google wants you to believe that if you create a great website with awesome content, other people will just link your site and your site will rank well and you’ll get tons of traffic. This was true back in 1998 when Google was first getting started. That (and email) was how users shared stuff online. The web and how it is used has dramatically changed since then and Google is behind the curve. There are over 245 Million internet users in the US alone, that’s 79% of the population. How many of them actually own a site where they could add a link to you? I wasn’t able to track down that statistic, so I recently took a flash poll among friends. Of the 26 people I asked, only 2 had direct access to add a link to a site. I live in Boulder, which is really tech savvy. So while I guessed the number would be low, I thought it would be a little higher than two. One of them is a signer/songwriter and has a blog that hasn’t been updated since March. Pandora recently picked up her first album. Instead of blogging about it, she shared it with her fans on her Facebook and ReverbNation pages. You know, where people will actually see it.
Ask your friends and family members. How do they discover and find cool and unique sites? I bet most of them will say Facebook (or Pinterest or some other social platform). So why does Google continue to so heavily rely on links as a sign of relevant results? Yes, they factor in social metrics, but the data shows links are still king. The link disavow tool indicates that links are still their go to metric. Here’s the catch though, social metrics aren’t the answer either.
The problem with social sharing is people share cat videos. Ok, well that’s not a problem exactly. I don’t have anything against cats or their videos. What I mean is, people aren’t often interested in sharing a page from a business site talking about their services. It happens, but is only a small percent of the sharing going on. Instead, they share a video of Darth Vader riding a unicycle while playing the bagpipes. That might work if you sell unicycles (or bagpipes or darth vader costumes). But how does that help potential customers know how you good your unicycles are? Unicyclists are often an interesting crowd so creating a video like that may win some points with your target audience and demonstrate that you understand their needs. There are some great options to market to your target audience using social media, but I’m talking about SEO. Social sharing (cats or otherwise) isn’t a problem, it just isn’t a great metric for judging the relevancy of a search query with a website.
Here’s where Google doesn’t get it. The ability of creating a piece of content that gets a lot of social interaction and links speaks volumes to how good of a writer (or marketer) you are. But it speaks nothing of how good your products and services are. It also says very little about how relevant your site is to a given search query. It might even be a sign that business is slow. The exception to this is if that is exactly what you are selling (like writers or artists) or just not selling anything at all. Otherwise, there just isn’t enough correlation between between great companies and great content on their website. The same can be said about marketing in general, but with Google it’s a little different because they have such dominance in search engine market share. Other forms of marketing have a more diverse set of channels for companies to get their message out. Let’s take radio for example. Your audience members have their favorite stations, but most people flip back and forth for various reasons. So if you aren’t able to tell your story on one station, you can try on another. With search engine marketing, it’s Google 88.8% of the time. Your marketing is limited to one set of editorial rules.
Google’s disavow links tool shows that they are still stuck in the past relying too heavily on links to determine rankings. I don’t think it will help with negative SEO or link spam. There’s a saying that it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission. People create link spam because it works. It may only work in the short term, but it works. So spammers can simply build those links then disavow them later when they get caught. This could very well have a net increase in link spam.
Google used to just simply ignore these links after they figured out what they were. This is was a defensive stance. The penguin update was largely an offense move from Google. Penguin is also a double edge sword and can be used as a tool for those practicing negative SEO. The disavow tool just adds fuel to this fire. It validates that negative SEO works and is a real problem. Even worse, the link spammer can now build more links, disavow them later, AND play the victim card. Surely, there must be a better approach to this. While we work on that, enjoy a picture of Darth Vader wearing a kilt, playing bagpipes, while riding around the streets of Portland on a unicycle.
*If you’re still with me, the 87,000 links calculation is based on the 2MB file size limitation of the disavow link tool.
Now do even need to disavow links is another difficult question. The easiest way to find out is to try Fruition’s Google Penalty Checker Tool. This new tool makes it incredibly easy to figure out if you even need to worry about using the link disavow tool. Just go to the penalty checker page, signup, and authenticate your Google analytics account. The tool will then calculate exactly what Google penalties your website is under. If you’re getting hit by a panda update it’ll show those. If you’re getting hit by a penguin update it’ll show those as well. Try out and then let us know what you think of Fruition’s Google Penalty Checker tool.
Ben Smith is a Researcher at Fruition, specializing in Google's Algorithm changes. Ben is a graduate of the University of Denver’s Mathematics program, and he enjoys learning about Google’s search algorithm updates. He's a vital asset of the Fruition team, and he one day hopes to publish a book. In his free time, you can find Ben enjoying the outdoors of Colorado.
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